Greetings fellow geeks, nerds, and Star Wars fans! My name is Matthew Kadish — author, evil genius, and radical gender studies aficionado, here today to analyze yet another issue relating to the most controversial film in the Star Wars canon: The Last Jedi.
My Storycraft series is meant to look at movies, TV shows, and novels from the perspective of a storyteller in an attempt to figure out how and why audiences react the way they do to these forms of entertainment. In this installment, we’ll be diving into an issue that The Last Jedi created which affects every single Star Wars film, TV show, book, and comic book which has come before it.
Knowing the passion fans of Star Wars have, both in criticizing and defending this film, I just want to state up front that the purpose of this essay is not to “hate” on The Last Jedi, but to look as objectively as possible at errors in its narrative and mistakes made by its writer as a way to educate other prospective storytellers. So just to be clear, this essay is NOT about:
- Hating on a particular movie, TV show, or book.
- Attacking the artist who produced that movie, TV show, or book.
- Attacking anyone who liked said movie, TV show, or book.
- Convincing anyone NOT to like a specific movie, TV show, or book.
My goal with Storycraft is simply to take an analytical look at a piece of entertainment and break it down based on established and proven theories about how to properly tell a story, for the purposes of educating those who wish to learn the art of storytelling. In essence, Storycraft is about the concepts behind telling stories effectively — nothing else. This is not meant to be a review, simply an in-depth narrative analysis based in professional standards of storytelling.
Of course, you’re free to disagree with my analysis. I don’t claim to be an authority on anything. But if you feel I’m wrong about something, feel free to debate me about it in the comments or on Twitter (@MatthewKadish), so long as you remain respectful. I always welcome feedback!
Okay, now that the disclaimer is out of the way, let’s get to the nitty gritty of what this analysis of Star Wars: The Last Jedi is about…
The Narrative Paradigm
Before I get into the actual issue The Last Jedi created, I just want to cover the concept of “Consistency” when it relates to a narrative.
Walter Fisher, Professor Emeritus at the Annenberg School for Communication, developed a theory which has come to be known as the “Narrative Paradigm”. The Narrative Paradigm is basically a theory that claims all meaningful communication occurs via storytelling. Audiences participate in narratives as observers receiving information the narrative is communicating to them. Essentially the narrative paradigm helps us to explain how audiences are able to understand complex information conveyed through a story’s narrative.
The ability to understand information through a story’s narrative is called “narrative rationality,” and it is made up of two elements: Narrative Coherence, and Narrative Fidelity.
Narrative Coherence is the degree to which a story makes sense. Coherent stories are internally consistent, with sufficient detail, reliable characters, and free of major surprises. Audiences assess a story’s coherence by comparing it with similar stories.
Narrative Fidelity is the degree to which a story fits into the audience’s prior understanding. Stories with fidelity do not violate things an audience has come to accept to be true, such as being able to breathe in outer space without the assistance of an oxygen tank, for example.
When these two elements are respected, it prevents audiences from formulating objections to the narrative based on rational thought. So long as “narrative rationality” is maintained, so too is the suspension of disbelief.
In short: So long as a story makes sense, audiences will believe it.
To this extent, in order to stick to the Narrative Rationality of a story, one must maintain consistency throughout it. So what is consistency? Simply put, consistency is defined as that which agrees with what came before it and is not self-contradictory.
This concept of Narrative Consistency is vital to an audience’s acceptance of a story and the willing suspension of disbelief needed to maintain immersion in said story. Because this concept is so important, let’s dive into it just a bit further, shall we?
The Three Aspects Of Narrative Consistency
Stories actually utilize more than one type of consistency to preserve narrative rationality for audiences. In fact, they use three. These three different types of consistency are:
- External Consistency
- Genre Consistency
- Internal Consistency
It is important that all three of these be maintained by the storyteller at all times to preserve both coherence and fidelity in a narrative. Creating self-contradictions in any of these aspects of consistency can destroy an audience’s acceptance of the narrative and eliminate the willing suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy it. So what are these, exactly? And how do they differ from one another?
First, let’s discuss External Consistency. This is basically a story’s consistency with the real world. The fictional universe of a narrative is typically treated like reality by audiences unless the audience is specifically told otherwise. Violations of external consistency are considered to be “unrealistic” story elements.
How many times have you heard someone complain about a certain aspect of a movie not being “realistic?” This is an example of an external consistency violation. For instance, how many times have audiences seen an action movie where someone blows up a car by shooting the gas tank with a gun, only to have the car erupt in a huge fireball? Anyone who knows anything about cars or firearms can tell you this is an unrealistic outcome. Another example would be when someone in a movie fires a revolver up to twelve times without reloading. Even someone who isn’t a firearms expert knows that revolvers only have the capacity to chamber six bullets. So when the action hero kills upward of 32 bad guys without stopping to reload, audiences are aware that an external consistency has been violated.
Now let’s talk about Genre Consistency. This is how a narrative is consistent with similar fictional works and an audience’s expectation of those works. The fictional universe of a particular narrative should behave like other works in its genre, unless specifically noted otherwise. Any fictional concepts, characters, or settings borrowed from other works should behave as they do in those works. In this type of continuity, tropes common to the genre are played straight. For example, a dragon is generally expected to be a flying reptilian creature that breathes fire. If it’s different in a certain narrative, the differences should be pointed out before they start affecting the plot.
But beyond that, if a horror movie isn’t scary, doesn’t have a monster, and doesn’t have any gore in it, then it will not be consistent with the genre audiences expect it to be a part of. An example of this is the recent movie Mother! which was marketed as a horror film, but was actually an art-house allegory for religion, and audiences rejected it because it was not the type of movie they had been told it was. Audiences identify certain genres with certain tropes, and they crave stories in those genres because they enjoy the tropes associated with them. Though it is possible to experiment with genre consistency, by-and-large, audiences want and expect things associated with the proper genre of a story. When a storyteller fails to deliver these things (or fails to properly prepare the audience for changes with them) genre consistency is violated.
Finally, we get to the notion of Internal Consistency. This boils down to a narrative’s consistency with itself. Any rules, events, settings, or characters that have been established within the fictional work should continue to exist and function as they did previously, unless otherwise indicated. If a story takes place in an Expanded Universe, it’s generally expected to be consistent with the previously established Canon. If the story is a canonical sequel or prequel, it is expected to be consistent with the story audiences are already familiar with. But most of all, if the story introduces elements within itself, these elements must remain consistent throughout the story that is currently being told.
Examples of internal consistency are pretty easy to point out. If the story is set in the modern day, the story cannot suddenly change its setting to be in the past — at least not without explanation. It can’t be 2018 in one scene and then 1418 in the next if it is not made clear the scene isn’t a flashback or that time travel is a trope in the narrative. Likewise, you can’t have the time of day switch from day to night within a scene unless there is a reason why it does, such as a solar eclipse. If a previous narrative set up characters and situations that remained unresolved, then the sequel narrative cannot suddenly follow completely different characters and situations without addressing what came before it.
Should any of these three aspects of narrative consistency be violated by the storyteller, it can create self-contradictions within the narrative that can affect the narrative rationality of all associated narratives, because suddenly the audience is now aware of the contradictions. This brings us to The Last Jedi, and the one scene which violated the series’ previously established Internal Continuity…
The Holdo Maneuver
In The Last Jedi, audiences are introduced to the character of Admiral Holdo, played by actress Laura Dern. Leading into the third act of the film, Admiral Holdo sacrifices herself to save the survivors of the Resistance in their desperate escape from the relentless First Order fleet by jumping the Mon Calamari cruiser The Raddus into lightspeed and kamikaze bombing the First Order fleet. For reference, here is the scene in question:
Now, this scene is obviously exciting and visually stunning. However, when examined from a storycraft perspective, it is catastrophically problematic.
And the reason it is so problematic is because the “Holdo Maneuver” of accelerating a starship to lightspeed to be used as a weapon violates the internal consistency of all the Star Wars movies, creating such a massive self-contradiction that it retroactively creates errors in plot-logic in every previously made film in the franchise.
If the audience is now being told by the narrative that lightspeed travel can be weaponized in the Star Wars universe, then when “narrative rationality” kicks in, the audience suddenly starts asking questions that incorporates this new story element into what they know of the Star Wars stories they’ve seen thus far.
If one ship travelling at lightspeed can almost wipe out an entire fleet, why didn’t the Resistance evacuate one of their ships earlier on in the chase and use that to attack the First Order Fleet, crippling them while the remaining Resistance ships escaped to hysperspace? After all, they knew they’d eventually lose their large ships to the bombardment of the First Order Fleet, so why not sacrifice one to save the rest?
If lightspeed travel can be weaponized, why didn’t the arms merchants introduced on Canto Bight develop unmanned lightspeed vessels to be used for kamikaze runs that they could sell to both the Republic and the First Order? Surely weapons such as these would be in high demand in the Star Wars Universe?
Once the Resistance escaped to the salt planet of Crait, why didn’t Kylo Ren order one of the damaged Star Destroyers to be accelerated to lightspeed directly at the Resistance base, creating a massive crater that would have destroyed the base and everyone in it?
In The Force Awakens, why did the Resistance have to make such a high-risk run on Starkiller Base to destroy it, if they could have just had unmanned ships do a lightspeed kamikaze run at the base’s weak point, annihilating the base’s control center and preventing the weapon from firing?
In Return Of The Jedi, when it became obvious the Emperor had laid a trap for the Rebellion Fleet, why didn’t Admiral Akbar order one of the fleet’s capitol ships to perform a lightspeed kamikaze run at the uncompleted and vulnerable Death Star in order to save the fleet from the ambush?
When the Empire learned of the existence of the Rebel base on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, why didn’t they send unmanned drones to it at lightspeed from orbit to demolish the base instead of launching a full-scale ground invasion of the planet, thus ensuring that no rebels could escape and that the Rebellion would be destroyed?
Why did the Empire expend such a huge amount of resources to create a Death Star if it would have been cheaper and more effective to build large lightspeed-capable missiles the size of Star Destroyers to launch at targets in order to destroy them?
Why didn’t the Rebels use X-Wings or other fightercraft, piloted by R2 units, to kamikaze into Star Destroyers and perform extensive “hit and run” missions against the superior Imperial fleet?
Why didn’t the Trade Federation create droid-piloted lightspeed weapons to fight against the superior capitol ships of the Old Republic?
In fact, if you would like to see a more comprehensive breakdown of these issues, be sure to check out this video which explains them very well:
As one can see, the contradictions in plot logic now abound in the Star Wars universe due to the introduction of the Holdo Maneuver in The Last Jedi. Whether or not parts of the Star Wars audience can excuse these new contradictions in the saga’s internal continuity is immaterial, because there will always be segments of the audience who cannot dismiss these now narrative-breaking errors in consistency, thus ruining not just The Last Jedi for these members of the audience, but actively ruining all movies in the Star Wars franchise for them.
Defending The Weaponization Of Lightspeed
The defenders of Rian Johnson’s decision to weaponize the concept of lightspeed travel in Star Wars do not seem to place a lot of importance on the narrative’s internal consistency. Their defense of the writer/director’s choice to introduce this story element essentially boils down to the following:
- It looked cool.
- No one said this couldn’t ever have happened before.
- The characters in the previous movies didn’t know about it.
- The Rebels/Resistance can’t afford to sacrifice their ships like this all the time.
Let us tackle these justifications one at a time. Firstly, yes, the scene of Holdo sacrificing herself in The Last Jedi was indeed visually stunning. But spectacle alone is never a good justification for poor storycraft. Placing style over substance is a detriment to the audience’s enjoyment of a narrative, because after the initial awe of the visuals wears off, all that remains is the actual substance of the story. It is possible to have both style AND substance in a well-written and conceived narrative. But in this example, it was obvious the whole reason for the Holdo Maneuver in The Last Jedi was due to Rian Johnson’s desire to shoehorn in a visually stunning set piece that he thought would be cool to do at the expense of the greater narrative.
The next justification that “just because it’s never happened before doesn’t mean it couldn’t have” is also a poor defense, mostly due to the concept of “canon.” To quote a previous article of mine explaining this concept:
In narrative fiction, the term “canon” is used to describe an accepted principle or rule relating to the narrative. This is basically a story element that is established to be true within the narrative that is being told to an audience.
But there is a counterpoint to the concept of “canon,” which is called “headcanon.” If you are unfamiliar with the storytelling concept of “headcanon,” it’s simply this:
Headcanon is an audience member’s personal, idiosyncratic interpretation of a fictional story, that is not necessarily found within or supported by the actual story.
So while “canon” can be interpreted as something clearly established within the narrative of a story that is NOT open to interpretation, “headcanon” is something which is NOT clearly established within the narrative of a story and is based on an audience member’s personal interpretation of that narrative — an interpretation that is not clear or accepted by others.
Thus, the absence of a story element that was not previously established is not an argument for it actually existing. After all, the ability to disprove does not prove. If a storyteller is reliant on his or her audience to use “headcanon” in order to make sense of a narrative, then that storyteller is not practicing proper storycraft due to the simple fact that not all audience members would resort to such a tactic to justify a bad plot element, and it would therefore be inconsistent.
Many proponents of this justification like to point to a scene in the climactic space battle of The Return Of The Jedi where an A-wing pilot makes a suicide run on the bridge of the Super Star Destroyer Executor as an example of a Holdo-type Maneuver existing before The Last Jedi. However, it was established in that scene that the suicide run was only possible once the Executor’s shield generators had been destroyed and the bridge was unprotected. It was the Executor’s shields which prevented other starfighters from engaging in kamikaze runs on its command center. So it could be argued that shields protect starships against lightspeed impacts, and if this is the case, it would make sense as to why this technique was not employed in the past, due to every ship, base, and some planets in the Star Wars universe operating some type of shield technology.
However, this is countered by the Holdo Maneuver scene in The Last Jedi because it can be assumed that the First Order ships all had their shields engaged at the time Admiral Holdo rammed her ship into the fleet. In fact, at about an hour and a half into the movie, there’s a scene where the characters of Finn, Rose, and DJ actually hack into the Supremacy’s shields in order to sneak onto the ship, thus establishing that the Supremacy did indeed have its shields active when The Raddus engaged its lightspeed engines.
So if the First Order ships were damaged by the lightspeed jump of The Raddus, shields cannot be a deterrent to such a maneuver, at least according to the internal consistency present in The Last Jedi itself. And please note, it was actively established in a previous scene of The Last Jedi that The Supremacy did, in fact, have their shields up at the time of this event. Thus, there is no canonical obstacle as to why lightspeed projectiles had never been used in space battles before, if shields do nothing to protect a ship from lightspeed impacts.
The “headcanon” concept also relates to the third justification used by defenders of The Last Jedi that characters within the universe didn’t know about this story element in previous films. Again, the absence of something does not prove its existence. Headcanon tells us that it’s possible this tactic of weaponized light speed might not have been known throughout all the previous Star Wars movies, but there is a canonical mention of how hyperspace operates in A New Hope:
So the concept of ships impacting things while travelling at lightspeed is indeed set-up in the Star Wars canon. Not to mention that hyperspace/lightspeed travel has been in existence for a long period of time in the Star Wars universe, so it stands to reason, due to External Consistency, that impacts of objects travelling at lightspeed have occurred before.
Finally, we get to the justification that the Rebels/Resistance cannot afford to sacrifice the resources necessary to perform this maneuver whenever they need to. That it’s too costly to sacrifice a ship or lives to weaponize lightspeed. But again, it’s established in Star Wars continuity that ships can be auto-piloted by astromech droids, or droids of some kind. It’s also established that small starfighters can possess lightspeed engines, so the actual engines themselves would not be hard or prohibitively expensive to come by. And the cost in resources is always dwarfed by the benefit of eliminating threats that can potentially destroy planets or at the very least affect the entire galaxy.
The Last Jedi actually establishes that a “war economy” exists in the Star Wars universe, with weapons merchants selling military equipment to both The Resistance and The First Order. Seeing as how unmanned lightspeed projectiles would be extremely powerful weapons coveted by both sides, External Consistency dictates that there would not only be a market for these types of weapons, but also someone willing to supply them. And if there are unmanned versions of lightspeed vehicles available, then one cannot argue that using them would be too costly in terms of lives or resources. Even if a large capitol-sized ship was necessary to make a significant impact, they could be far cheaper to produce than a fully functional capitol ship, simply due to the fact that they don’t have to be designed for anything other than accelerating to lightspeed. One need only a droid to pilot it at a target, no life support systems, crew quarters, shielding, or weaponry necessary. All that would be required is an engineering bay for the engines and a cockpit (assuming it couldn’t be piloted remotely, like the droid ships from the prequels were).
Also, this is Star Wars, a universe where there are enough resources to not only build a space station the size of a moon, but also convert an entire planet into a doomsday weapon, as was the case with Starkiller Base. The utilization of resources has never been a plot point in any of the Star Wars movies, thus making this a weak argument in defense of the Holdo Maneuver story element.
Why The Holdo Maneuver Is Catastrophic For Star Wars
The real issue here is now that this element of lightspeed weaponization has been introduced within the narrative, it is officially considered to be canon. And when a canonical element creates numerous instances of self-contradictions within a story’s internal consistency, it has to be addressed in future installments of the narrative. Thus, creating a need for “retroactive continuity” or a “retcon.”
In essence, proper storycraft demands that the narrative rationality of the Holdo Maneuver now be officially addressed in future Star Wars canonical entries in order to fix the contradictions it created in the saga’s internal consistency. Without doing so, audiences will continue to break the willing suspension of disbelief while watching Star Wars movies. Every time an epic space battle appears in the narrative, a large portion of the audience will be forced to ask:
“Why not just accelerate a ship into lightspeed and destroy the bad guys?”
As is obvious, this is a blatant failure in storycraft. The whole notion of a “retcon” is a technique designed to fix a mistake in the narrative that came before it. The very need for such a thing illustrates that very little forethought or planning went into the crafting of The Last Jedi’s story. And should this story element NOT be addressed, all future and past Star Wars films, TV shows, books, and comic books will suffer as a result.
It is important to remember that a storyteller’s primary job is to entertain his or her audience. Stories are meant to be immersive, to the point where the audience forgets it is even being told a story. The goal of storytellers is to ensure that the largest audience possible gets a good experience from their narrative. Aside from the targeting of a specific audience, the “general audience” is always what a storyteller should keep in mind.
Particularly with a franchise as beloved as Star Wars. Since its inception, Star Wars was always meant to have a broad appeal. It was not a niche film designed for a specific type of audience. It was conceptualized by creator George Lucas to be a fairy tale for all ages and all demographics. In short, it was a narrative meant to be enjoyed by all.
I would argue that Rian Johnson failed in this regard. Examples of flawed storycraft like The Holdo Maneuver abound in his take on the Star Wars mythos, and it would appear Mr. Johnson crafted the narrative of The Last Jedi to suit his own personal tastes rather than keeping the Star Wars fanbase and the general audience in mind. This is a drastic departure from the previously established Narrative Paradigm of Star Wars, and a strange one considering that the narrative in question is the 8th installment of a larger series and meant to carry on consistency from the previous entries.
This is not to say The Last Jedi cannot be considered an entertaining film, but it can be considered to be a flawed and poorly written one. Any story that can affect the internal consistency of everything that came before it to such a degree is objectively an example of bad storycraft. In the shaping and telling of a narrative, storytellers must always factor in what came before, what may come after, and the audience experience of what they intend to share. To not do so can be detrimental to the audience’s enjoyment of the narrative, to the point where it actually alienates audiences and encourages them to stop wanting to experience future installments of the narrative.
In his failure to employ proper storycraft, Rian Johnson did terrible damage to the narrative of the Star Wars saga.
Let us hope it is not beyond fixing.
Check Out My Other Articles
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